Uncertainty levels of electrification in informal urban settlements: a case from South Africa

Approaches to informal settlement upgrading generally focus on the physical and territorial lack of infrastructure. This technical approach is to the detriment of a more politicized vision for upgrading that requires a more complex governance approach. When it comes to the challenge of electrification in informal settlements, Kovacic et al. argue in a recent article published in Habitat International that this technical vision of upgrading is even more prevalent.

Using the case of the introduction of solar panels in a South African informal settlement, the authors recognize the contribution of the project to the improvement of living standards in the settlement. Nevertheless, they critique the framework in which the programme was implemented and which eventually contributed to a progressive depoliticization of upgrading.

The installation of rooftop solar panels in the settlements had a positive impact. It led to a relative decrease in the use of paraffin and its associated health risks (p:9). However, this strategy was mainly technical and did not address what the authors call methodological and epistemological uncertainties.

Methodological uncertainty relates to the challenge of representing the problem of electrification in informal settlements. In this case, it means that solar panels helped to avoid the dependence on fossil energy but at the same time did not provide the same performance obtained by the supply of electricity through the grid (p:8). Estimating demand and demographic changes in the settlements, it would have made more sense to extend the grid, according to the authors.

Epistemological uncertainty relates to the challenge of defining the problem of electrification for informal settlements. In other words, solar panels do not address the issue of “formal recognition of the settlement, service provision by the municipality, and the political challenge of managing the growth of informal settlements and alleviating social inequality” (p:9).

Following Roy’s critique of upgrading for its narrow focus on physical infrastructure and space, the authors conclude that there is a need to enhance the politicization of upgrading policies in order to genuinely “challenge the social and political order by which marginalisation and poverty are created” (p:9).

Article available from Habitat InternationalVolume 56, August 2016, Pages 212–221 [sub required].

Image: World Bank Photo Collection.


Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher Habitat International
Year 2016
Author(s) Zora Kovacic, Suzanne Smit, Josephine Kaviti Musango, Alan Colin Brent, Mario Giampietro
DOI 10.1016
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